On September 18, 1810, Chile broke from Spanish rule, declaring their independence (although they still were theoretically loyal to King Ferdinand VII of Spain, then a captive of the French). This declaration eventually led to over a decade of violence and warring which did not end until the last royalist stronghold fell in 1826. September 18 is celebrated in Chile as Independence Day.
Prelude to Independence:
In 1810, Chile was a relatively small and isolated part of the Spanish Empire. It was ruled by a governor, appointed by the Spanish, who answered to the Viceroy in Buenos Aires. Chile’s de facto independence in 1810 came about as a result of a number of factors, including a corrupt governor, the French occupation of Spain and growing sentiment for independence.
A Crooked Governor:
The governor of Chile, Francisco Antonio García Carrasco, was involved in a huge scandal in October of 1808. The British whaling Frigate Scorpion visited Chilean shores to sell a load of smuggled cloth, and García Carrasco was part of a conspiracy to steal the smuggled goods. During the robbery, the captain of the Scorpion and some sailors were murdered, and the resulting scandal forever besmirched García Carrasco’s name. For a while, he could not even govern and had to hide out at his hacienda in Concepción. This mismanagement by a Spanish official fueled the fire of independence.
Growing Desire for Independence:
All throughout the New World, European colonies were clamoring for independence. Spain’s colonies looked to the north, where the United States had thrown off their British masters and made their own nation. In northern South America, Simón Bolivar, Francisco de Miranda and others were working for independence for New Granada. In Mexico, Father Miguel Hidalgo would kick off Mexico’s War for Independence in September of 1810 after months of conspiracies and aborted insurrections on the part of the Mexicans. Chile was no different: patriots such as Bernardo de Vera Pintado had already been working towards independence.
France Invades Spain:
In 1808, France invaded Spain and Portugal, and Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne after capturing King Charles IV and his heir, Ferdinand VII. Some Spaniards set up a loyalist government, but Napoleon was able to defeat it. The French occupation of Spain caused chaos in the colonies. Even those loyal to the Spanish crown did not want to send taxes to the French government of occupation. Some regions and cities, such as Argentina and Quito, chose a middle ground: they declared themselves loyal but independent until such a time as Ferdinand was restored to the throne.
In May, 1810, Argentine Patriots took power in what was known as the May Revolution, essentially deposing the Viceroy. Governor García Carrasco attempted to assert his authority by arresting two Argentines, José Antonio de Rojas and Juan Antonio Ovalle, as well as Chilean patriot Bernardo de Vera Pintado and sending them to Peru, where another Spanish Viceroy still clung to power. Furious Chilean patriots did not allow the men to be deported: they took to the streets and demanded an open town hall to determine their future. On July 16, 1810, García Carrasco saw the writing on the wall and voluntarily stepped down.
Rule of Mateo de Toro y Zambrano:
The resulting town hall elected Count Mateo de Toro y Zambrano to serve as governor. A soldier and member of an important family, De Toro was well-meaning but a bit daffy in his advancing years (he was in his 80’s). The leading citizens of Chile were divided: some wanted a clean break from Spain, others (mostly Spaniards living in Chile) wanted to remain loyal, and still others preferred the middle route of a limited independence until such time as Span got back on its feet. Royalists and Patriots alike used de Toro’s brief reign to prepare their arguments.
The September 18 Meeting:
Chile’s leading citizens called for a meeting on September 18 to discuss the future. 300 of Chile’s leading citizens attended: most were Spaniards or wealthy Creoles from important families. At the meeting, it was decided to follow the path of Argentina: create an independent government, nominally loyal to Ferdinand VII. The Spaniards in attendance saw it for what it was: independence behind the veil of loyalty, but their objections were overruled. A junta was elected, and de Toro y Zambrano was named President.
Legacy of Chile’s September 18 Movement:
The new government had four short-term goals: establish a Congress, raise a national army, declare free trade and get in contact with the junta then leading Argentina. The meeting on September 18 set Chile firmly on the path to independence and was the first Chilean self-government since before the days of the conquest. It also marked the arrival on the scene of Bernardo O’Higgins, son of a former Viceroy. O’Higgins participated in the September 18 meeting and would eventually become Chile’s greatest hero of Independence.
Chile’s path to Independence would be a bloody one, as patriots and royalists would fight up and down the nation for the next decade. Nevertheless, independence was inevitable for the former Spanish colonies and the September 18 meeting was an important first step.
Today, September 18 is celebrated in Chile as their Independence Day. It is remembered with the fiestas patrias or “national parties.” The celebrations kick off in early September and can last for weeks. All over Chile, people celebrate with food, parades, reenactments, and dancing and music. The national rodeo finals are held in Rancagua, thousands of kites fill the air in Antofagasta, in Maule they play traditional games, and many other places have traditional celebrations. If you’re going to Chile, the middle of September is a great time to visit to catch the festivities!
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Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Scheina, Robert L. Latin America’s Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2003.